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MaddAddam: A Novel
Nan A. Talese, 2013
416 pp., $27.95
Christina Bieber Lake
The End of the End of the World
Writers of speculative fiction are forever getting called out for their failures. The most typical complaint goes something like this: "in the interest of developing her critique of _____ (fill in with any specific social ill), the writer forgets that a novel is composed of compelling characters and an interesting story. This book gives us neither."
This complaint was often made about Oryx and Crake, the first novel in Margaret Atwood's now-completed trilogy. Sven Birkets, though he enjoyed the novel, complained in The New York Times Book Review that "we can take in only so many confected scenarios of future life before we crave a complexity of character commensurate with the intelligence of the plot or the confident excellence of the writing." For my part, I thought these readings were unfair because Atwood succeeded in something arguably more difficult to achieve, namely, dramatic social satire. In satire, the believability of the characters and the story itself are necessarily subservient to the scenario. What the writer wants the reader to see is the world itself, what it is, what it has become, and, in the case of dystopic satires, what it will become if we are not careful.
Sometimes it does not do to listen to one's critics. With MaddAddam (as with the second novel in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood), Atwood might have overcorrected. In her efforts to give us new characters and more stories about the plague's survivors, Atwood forfeits the satirical edginess of Oryx and Crake. In that novel she powerfully revealed how our present, grotesque choices are building a near future in which someone like Crake could move and work and dream dreams of perfection. It told the truth via exaggeration: one man's ideal perfection is another man's actual destruction. When MaddAddam returns to Crake's story and the forces that created him, the novel shines. The rest of it is simply a romp—albeit a really fun romp.
Atwood has always had a gift for moving seamlessly back and ...